Supersonic's Mark McCulloch on tackling the staff shortage with Hospitality Rising

07 July 2022 by

Last year the chief executive of brand agency Supersonic proposed to tackle the staffing crisis with a high-profile advertising campaign. He tells Emma Lake why operators need to back Hospitality Rising's recruitment drive

How did Hospitality Rising come about?

We all know there's a crisis. We've got 400,000 vacancies and rising, we've got no overseas workers coming in en masse, we've got a 42% leave rate – one of the worst of any industry, and only one in five people would consider working in hospitality. That's all costing the industry and the economy £400m a week. It's a toxic situation.

Hospitality Rising is the industry's official response to those problems, backed by the Hospitality and Tourism Skills Board, which is a government-affiliated committee. The kernel of the idea was the Army's ‘Be the Best' campaign, one of the best campaigns of all time. We're trying to do that, but for hospitality. It will mean coming together as one industry to get the people and the talent that we deserve and make sure they don't go into retail, building sites, Amazon fulfilment centres, Uber, etc.

How are you finding fundraising?

We have raised just over £700,000 since December last year, so we're doing OK. My initial thought was that we'd raise the money we needed and then stop fundraising and get on with the fun stuff, but now I think we'll be continuously fundraising in the background.

We were always hoping to raise £5m and in the long term hopefully we'll get there. Whereas £1m is enough to do stuff, it's easier to spend £5m than it is to spend £1m. Our next target is the top 150 employers in hospitality. What we're finding is that they're all looking at each other to go first. We just need one to come in, and then they'll all come in. I think a certain amount of bravery is needed, but I'm slightly disappointed we haven't had more from them, considering they employ so many people and I'm sure they're having problems recruiting.

McCulloch at the Digital Summit
McCulloch at the Digital Summit

How are you developing the wider campaign?

We have three teams. One is creative, which I'm leading, for the advertising side of things. Another is recruitment, so working on the website where the investors' jobs will sit, and the third is the fundraising team, who will be keeping the awareness going.

The next stage is the most exciting, which is the advertising. We've listened hard to the industry and what it needs. We've listened hard to the target audience, which is under-30s looking at entry-level jobs. And we've been thinking about where Gen Z's attention is.

We're going to push the fact you can say what you like about hospitality, but you can't say it's boring. It's for people who don't want the nine to five, who want a bit of excitement in their lives. The other thing that really came through was that you can't really go further, faster, than with a job in hospitality. Last week in Scotland I met someone who was 23 who was running a £3m business. You don't get that in the City or an office job.

It's a sweet spot for us because that's exactly the way these kids are wired. They want to be successful quickly, they don't want to wait for anything, they want to be a director tomorrow. So we can say to them, ‘it's on you to make it happen, but it's there – there's no glass ceiling, no restrictions.' That's an exciting message.

This is the best plan we've had in 30 years

Why have you decided to target the under-30s? I get it all the time: what about the 55-year-olds, what about ex-offenders? Fine, we'll get there, but the fastest flippable population that we have right now is under-30s in entry-level jobs and the way we're going to get to them is by going out and saying ‘you can't get further faster' and ‘it's the non-boring option'.

How are you going to reach them?

We're looking at where their attention is. Unsurprisingly it's in digital, as they have their faces stuck to their phones pretty much 24/7. So we'll be doing a digital-forward campaign, TikTok will feature heavily because the organic reach is insane and it's where everyone is. TikTok has more traffic than Google. This isn't niche, it's not kids dancing. I've had great success with a client in Scotland using TikTok to generate almost 1,000 applications – decent applications.

Obviously, other social channels will also be used and we're looking at media market deals, which is possible because we're seen as a social cause not a commercial one. Channel 4 may give us some space, outdoor media people might give us free billboards. We just need to see what we can get, and we'll take whatever we can. On top of that we'll be looking at in-venue marketing packs investors can use.

Radio seems to be interesting now. You think kids don't listen to radio but the commercial ads being played are Deliveroo, Uber, Amazon, Indeed, so it's interesting that those people are going hard on radio. I'm a great believer that people aren't fools on that mass scale, so there must be something in radio.

We'll need to have a partnership with the Daily Mail or The Sun. Whether you agree or disagree with them, they're incredibly power­ful. The Daily Mail would do the job of convincing mum and dad. The Sun came out with the ‘back our haulage drivers' campaign – we probably need a campaign from them like that.

We also need to get it into cookery programmes at large – MasterChef, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch. We're so blessed to have Robin Hutson and Angela Hartnett on our board. We've also got [Yotam] Ottolenghi, Nathan Outlaw, Tom Kerridge, Rick Stein, Thomasina Miers, who are investors, so we have a lot of goodwill that we can move into these programmes and that will help.

Hospitality is for people who don't want the nine to five, who want a bit of excitement in their lives

Have you done research into young people's mental barriers to going into hospitality?

KAM Media did a great piece of work for us for free. It's hardly a shock: it's not wanting to work Saturday nights, thinking it's underpaid, it's tough, and you get shouted at. All the things we're trying to get rid of. A lack of flexibility came up a lot, but the headline was you're underpaid and undervalued, but we know that's not true for so many out there. It's just unfortunate that's the mass view.

Will it be hard to convince parents that hospitality is a good career path for their kids?

If you say to most parents, ‘What do you want your kids to do?', they'll say banker, lawyer, whatever. And the kids will say, ‘I want to be a bitcoin millionaire or a YouTube star'.

The main messaging is if you want a job where you can progress quickly, make money but also work in a place that's not boring, look to hospitality. There's also an angle around flexibility: younger people are going to have side hustles and ambitions of being more. That's perfectly fine. We're not saying hospitality is a career for everyone, but boy would we love you to come and spend two or three years with us.

When you talk to people in hospitality so many of them say, ‘well, that's how I started'. There's great messaging as well around hospitality making you better equipped for whatever else you might do in life. It teaches you people skills, confidence and about business; all these different things make you a more well-rounded human being.

Do you anticipate other industries will launch similar schemes?

I've already had calls from other industries asking me if I'd be interested in ‘X' Rising. I've had to say no because I'd be competing against myself, but it looks like they're more ready to put the money in, so it would be much easier. That's the thing. It's not just persuading people to join hospitality, we need to actively fight against all the other people that are going to start investing big money. The airlines are going to start doing it, the haulage industry will. Everyone is short of people, so it's going to be a big challenge, and if we're not there then we'll lose out. This is the best plan we have and at the moment only around 200 brave souls have turned up to invest. I think about Delia Smith shouting ‘Let's be 'aving you.' I'm asking that.

You've got some great people on board.

I've tried to be as representative of the industry as I can be. We've got [UKHospitality chief executive] Kate Nicholls and [chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association] Emma McClarkin, and [chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping] Steve Alton, so that covers the three big trade bodies. On top of that we've got William Lees-Jones of JW Lees, Pret's people officer Andrea Wareham, Kay Harriman of Hilton, Lisa Taylor of Whitbread. We've got so many great minds.

When will the first adverts go out?

Traditional thinking is that everyone is away in August, so you wait until mid-September. However, for this target group, normal thinking is out the window. Gen Z and younger millennials use their phones more when they're away on holiday, so we're debating that right now. I'm hopeful something will be in market by mid-September.

What will the adverts look like?

We're working on that now. People need to remember it doesn't matter what I think of the advert or what you think of it as an operator – what matters is that it resonates with the audience.

How will you measure the campaign's success?

The main metric is we want to change consideration of working in hospitality among the target group from one in five to two in five. We'll measure this firstly by traffic to the [purpose-built recruitment] website, sign ups and applications. Second, we will be dipping into the market to see how consideration metrics change. Consideration metrics move really slowly, so in that first year it might not be up that much, but it's a journey. We'll give it our best, but people not investing and not getting behind it is a sure-fire way for it not to work. This is the best plan we've had in 30 years.

Are you shocked by how bad the staffing situation is now?

No. We saw it coming and it's just going to get worse. The only way we can change this now is to get more people into the top of the funnel and to change that consideration set. We've got the answer, or part of the answer, but it's getting everyone on board. People say to me, ‘oh I'll invest when you hit £1m.' But if everyone thinks that, we'll never get anywhere.

What's your message to operators?

Please invest. This is going to be less of a success without you, and it feels unfair that some operators are playing their part and others aren't. Someone will have said at the Cateys about hospitality being together and being one big family, I'm saying show me that, show me you are, show the world you are. The only way we are going to win is together. It's that old phrase if you want to go far, go alone; if you want to go further, go together.

Sir Alex Ferguson said one of the reasons why Manchester United were so successful was that they only worried about three years' time, not this Saturday's game. There's a lot of operators – and I can understand why – worrying about Saturday. If we could get together and think that in three years' time, hospitality could be even a top 10 industry of choice, and wouldn't that be wonderful?

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